This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.
Later this week, Denmark will hold its first impeachment proceeding (Rigsrett) in 26 years. The main proceedings (hovedforhandlingen) start on September 2. In this blog post, I will describe the process of impeachment in Denmark.
On February 2, 2021, the Danish Parliament voted to start impeachment proceedings against former Minister for Immigration and Integration Inger Støjberg. In 2016, Støjberg issued an instruction requiring the immigration authority to separate married asylum seekers when one or both of the spouses were younger than 18 years old. Since then, that instruction has been deemed illegal by the Danish Parliamentary. Ombudsman (Folketingets Ombudsman). The Ombudsman found that the instruction exceeded the powers of the ministry and that the instruction did not sufficiently address cases on an individual basis. The instruction was issued in order to prevent underage girls from being sexually assaulted by their husbands. According to the Ombudsman, a total of 23 couples were separated because of the instruction, of which two couples continue to live separately today, following requests from the under-age person.
1. What is a Rigsrett?
As specified in article 16 of the Danish Constitution (Grundloven) there is a special court for the impeachment of current and former members of the Danish government: Rigsretten, which is governed by the Act on Impeachment Court (Lov om Rigsrett).
The Rigsrett is made up of the 15 most senior justices of the Danish Supreme Court and an equal number of members chosen by the Danish Parliament. (§ 59 Grundloven.) The members appointed by Parliament to sit on the impeachment panel are elected in advance for six-year terms. Members of Parliament cannot serve or be chosen to serve on the panel. (§ 2 Lov om Rigsrett.)
Justices who are unable to serve in a particular case or at a particular time may be excused. In such a case, the number of members appointed by Parliament on the panel must also be reduced by a corresponding number. Under no circumstances may the Court of Impeachment proceed with less than 18 members, i.e. nine supreme court justices and nine members appointed by Parliament. (§ 6 Lov om Rigsrett.)
The panel serving on the court against Inger Støjberg is made up of 13 justices of the Danish Supreme Court and 13 members previously appointed by the Danish Parliament.
As the court only meets on the rare occasion when Parliament has voted to impeach a minister, the Impeachment Court has no set building, and during the impeachment proceedings against Støjberg will meet at the Eigtveds Pakhus in Copenhagen.
There are no specific rules requiring a time schedule for the Rigsrett, but the Court is nevertheless bound by the general requirement that a court proceeding be conducted expeditiously.
2. Who can be brought before a Rigsrett?
The Danish Constitution (Grundloven) provides that sitting or former ministers can be impeached. (§ 16 Grundloven.)
3. Who determines who can be brought before a Rigsrett?
For an impeachment process to be initiated at least a simple majority of members of parliament must vote in favor of starting the process. (§ 16, Grundloven.) Before a vote on impeachment proceedings can be voted on, a parliamentary committee must make an inquiry into the actions of the minister and recommend that the minister be impeached. (18 ch. Forretningsorden for Folketinget.)
A clear majority of parliament (139 in favor and 30 against with 10 abstaining) voted to start impeachment proceedings against Støjberg earlier this year. A special commission has also reviewed the legality of the instruction (Instrukskommissionens Beretning 2020).
4. What are the conditions for finding a person guilty?
In accordance with section 5 of the Act on the Responsibility of Ministers (Lov om ministres ansvarlighed):
“A minister is convicted, if he, intentionally or as a result of gross negligence, neglects those duties which are incumbent on him under the Danish constitution or other legislation or as a result of the nature of his position.
The provision in paragraph 1 applies when a Minister provides Parliament with false or misleading information or during parliamentary considerations of a matter conceals information that is significant for Parliament’s assessment of the matter.“
Thus, conviction requires that the minister acted either with intent or was grossly negligent in his or her actions.
5. What happens if the impeached is found guilty?
In accordance with section 6 of the Act on Responsibility of Ministers, upon conviction in the Rigsrett, a minister may be fined or imprisoned for no more than two years, depending on the severity of his or her violation. Fines are calculated as day-fines, i.e., fines based on the daily income of the convicted. Sitting ministers may also be removed from office.
Moreover, in this particular case, if convicted, Inger Støjberg may not be able to run for re-election to the Danish Parliament. Article 30 of the Danish Constitution provides that every person who has a right to vote in the parliamentary elections is also eligible to stand for election “unless the relevant person is convicted of an act, that in the eyes of the public makes him unfit to serve as a member of Parliament.”
6. Can a person convicted by a Rigsrett be pardoned?
Article 24 of the Danish Constitution provides that the Danish Parliament can pardon a person who has previously been convicted by a Rigsrett.
7. What prior impeachments have been made and what was the outcome?
There have been five impeachment trials prior to the impeachment of Inger Stjøjberg. The most recent trial was in 1995 against Erik Ninn-Hansen, who was sentenced to four months of imprisonment for having prevented the family reunification of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. (Rigsretten, Dom af 22. juni 1995 (U 1995.672).) Ninn-Hansen later brought a case against Denmark at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) based on the impartiality of the judges in his impeachment case but the ECHR unanimously found it inadmissible.
Several Danish ministers have also resigned under the threat of impeachment, including most recently Morgens Jensen, the former minister for food, fisheries, and equal opportunities, over a government instruction to kill all Danish minks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 3, 2021, the Danish Parliament rejected a citizens’ impeachment proposal (a petition signed by more than 50,000 Danes) to impeach sitting Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen over her handling of the killing of Danish minks during the COVID-19 pandemic.